If we follow his tweets, we can bear witness to his daily soundtrack – the one he listens to while editing his photos. Some nights he edits his material to Serge Gainsbourg; others nights it’s The Walker Brothers. Scott Mitchell, the Edinburgh-based photographer, loves 60s music and mod culture. It was precisely this love of music that led him to cycling – a sport which has become one of the mainstays of his professional career. He says it all began during the 2010 Tour of Murcia, when he approached Bradley Wiggins – current title holder of the Tour de France, Olympic gold medallist and self-confessed mod – because he “knew he had a scooter”. At that meeting a friendship was born that changed Mitchell’s life: now he is the official photographer of Team Sky. Until then had dedicated himself to commercial and music photography (he shoots for Steve Cradock as well as The Moons).
He frequently accompanies Team Sky to the major stage races such as the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España. During the competition he publishes galleries of photos each day. Many of these are in black and white, and they bring a vision that is more artistic than usual to the aesthetics of sports photography. His snapshots have graced the front covers of specialised magazines such as ProCycling and are in demand by prestigious international publications like L’Équipe. His work can be seen on the Team Sky website, as well as in books such as 21 Days to Glory. (HarperCollins, 2012). In this interview, he talks about his work and the life that he shares with the sport on two wheels.
Barcelona, September 2012
How would you define a photograph?
A photograph, I would say, is a memory. It’s something that is captured. It doesn’t have to be something tactile that you can hold – it can be something in your head as well.
Do you remember your first camera?
Yes, I actually do remember my first camera because I’ve still got it! It’s a SX-70 Polaroid Camera. I remember because we were on holiday, funnily enough in Spain, and my dad gave me the camera…
In Spain?! Where?
I can’t remember where… It was Malaga or somewhere like that – it was a holiday sort of thing – I remember it was great because you got instant gratification as obviously the picture just popped out. I used to love taking Polaroids and I still do! I’ve still got a couple of Polaroid cameras. That was my first camera, it doesn’t work, but I’ve still got it. It’s all really plasticky and gimmicky but I love it.
And what did you like taking pictures of?
Pictures of my brother mucking about, and usually of my mum and dad together, and any sort of landscapes and things like that. Only because I had it round my neck and I’d be walking and see something. I would never ask a stranger because I was only a small boy… I’d never ask people. No, I was too shy.
And nowadays you’re mainly taking pictures of people!
I’m not shy anymore [laughs]. Well, I am actually but don’t tell anyone! You’ve just got to forget about that. When you put your camera around your neck you change slightly as a person I think. Like an actor on stage, or a footballer, or a cyclist on a bike; you’ve got to change your character slightly, and it’s the same for a photographer.
When did you realize that photography could be a job for you?
I met a girl who was a filmmaker. I’d always loved photography, but I never really felt I could actually do it, I thought it was too arty and aloofand I didn’t feel as if I could do that as a career. But it’s not: anyone can be a photographer. Just pick up a camera and start snapping. I was lucky because I did a foundation course and then I got offered a place at two universities, and I chose Edinburgh, because I liked Edinburgh, and that was the start of it for me. Anyone can be a photographer. You’ve just got to want to do it.
At the moment anyone can buy a digital camera, or take pictures with their mobile phone, as if it was the easiest thing in the world.
Taking good pictures is the hard thing. Anyone can take crap pictures. There is an argument that goes on: a good photographer has something already without learning how to take a picture. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know. Whether you can learn to be a photographer or whether you are a photographer and you learn how to take pictures – I don’t know what the answer is.
I think lot of it comes down to your personal character. For what I’m doing with the team [Sky], I’ve got a lot of empathy with the riders and the staff. I just like hanging out with them and photographing them, and they know I enjoy it, so I can get better pictures because of it. And if you were a certain other type of character that didn’t like speaking to them and hanging out with them, but just wanted to be in the team, you wouldn’t get very good pictures. Yeah, I think character plays a fairly big part in the type of pictures you take.
But you’re not a sports photojournalist…
No, I’m not.
… so when did your relationship with cycling start?
It started, funnily enough, in Spain, at the Tour of Murcia. My mum used to live in Spain, in Murcia. I remember going along to a race and Bradley [Wiggins] was racing there and I went to say hello because I knew he had a scooter [laughs]. And we started talking and hit it off straight away and he said “come and see me tomorrow”, and so I went for the five days. I went to see him every day and we talked and talked and talked, and at the end he asked if I could do his website photography. To cut a long story short… I went to the Tour de France with him in 2010, and, to cut another long story short, this year I was asked to work with Team Sky. And I’ve been to the Tour de Romandie, Giro d’Italia, Tour de France, and now I’m here at Vuelta a España.
When you started photographing riders, did you take inspiration from cycling magazines and books to learn more about the esthetics of the sport?
No, I completely refused to do that. And I still refuse to do that. I’m being quite serious for a moment. I don’t want to look at other photographers’ work. It’s not that I’m not interested – I just want to keep it really fresh. I don’t have a cycling background, and I’m trying to bring a different approach to it. That’s not strictly true. There are some photographers whose work I look at because I’ve met them and I think they’re quite interesting characters and I’ve wanted to see what type of work they’re doing, but as far as magazines or stuff like that, I don’t look at anything. I buy Rouleur, now and again. I like it for the articles as much as the photography. But I try to have my own style and I’m always trying to evolve and take different pictures. It’s difficult because the team has a routine – each day the same routine, more or less – but my routine is that I’ve got to take a different picture everyday so it’s quite a challenge. But it’s a good challenge because it means that you try to approach the same subject in a different way every day.
I imagine you had to change the way you work, shooting very fast…
Yes. When I was working as a commercial photographer in Edinburgh, I was basically the boss on the set and I’d tell everyone what to do. I’d light it and there would be a nice, slow pace; but here I’ve got to react rather than direct. At the last moment I may have to jump here and jump there, run to catch something. It’s a completely different challenge. It’s great fun and it’s been good for me as well, because my photography was quite structured. You know, I like beautifully composed pictures and I found it really difficult to start taking pictures where… I’ll love the picture – a really good picture of Bradley Wiggins and suddenly somebody sticks their arm into the frame! But now I just embrace it because that’s what happens at bike racing. I just enjoy that as part of the photography.
When you look through a camera, where do you see the beauty in cycling?
I suppose it’s… in part, the suffering, the dedication [he thinks for a while]. Yeah, I think that’s it. It’s people! I’m not interested in bicycles, cool buses, nice cars, nice cycling kit, shoes and stuff like that. I’m interested in people, how they commit to making cycling the most beautiful sport. And obviously, visually it’s beautiful. It’s very striking because of the forever-changing background. You could have the same race on the same course the next day and it will look completely different because of the light. That’s what’s attractive as a photographer, but I think that what draws me to cycling are the people, and the people on the team I’m employed by. You know, I’m sitting in the car with a Latvian and a Basque and somebody from Manchester, you know. I just love that mix! We’re all the same underneath it all. It’s just nice to be in that environment.
You like to show the exertion in the faces of the riders after they’ve raced – the sweat…
Yes, that’s a great shot as well. But this morning I’ve been shooting staff, and there’s tension there too. It’s there in the staff’s faces as well, because the mechanics have to ensure the bikes are absolutely perfect – they’ve got stress and things like that in their life and it’s good to photograph and represent that as well. Or maybe the carers are trying to get to the finish to make sure the riders get water. They’re suffering to do that, it’s very stressful for them. It’s good to show that as well. It’s the whole team. Obviously the riders are the people everyone wants to look at, but there’s a lot that goes on behind, there’s a lot of dedication with them as well.
You show riders doing other things besides riding their bikes, and most of your pictures are in black and white, with a special light to them.
It’s kind of naturalistic. If we go into a room, and there’s a bad light, I just go ahead with it. I obviously try to get my exposure to be better, but if the rider is in shadow I can live with it, you know? I think it just conveys something of the moment really. I can’t eloquently express what I’m trying to say but hopefully my pictures do that. That’s why they’re like that I suppose.
Some of the series we can see on the Team Sky website, which you call “behind the scenes”, remind me of pictures taken of a band backstage – getting ready to play, or just after the show.
I think there’re parallels because, you know, I work with Steve Cradock, and with Andy Crofts and The Moons. Obviously the lifestyle is completely different, but there are parallels photography-wise: before the performance, the performance, and then post-performance, and the preparation of the scenes. I like photographing the bands and the cyclists because they’re polar opposites and it’s good to challenge yourself like that. It’s cool.
Is it difficult to take a picture of a cyclist? I’m not sure they are used to it like a musician perhaps would be.
I think it’s difficult to take a picture of a cyclist because it’s one of the most difficult sports to photograph. You might travel for two hours to stand at the side of the road for 20 seconds of cyclists going by, and then travel another two hours to get to the finish. But do you mean me taking pictures of the Team Sky riders?
Then no, I don’t. I think because I do the galleries, and the riders look at the galleries, and I’ve had a lot of feedback. I’m on my third Tour now and everybody knows what I’m doing, and I think they’ve embraced it and allowed me to be a lot more intrusive than they perhaps would have with somebody else. I mean, on the Tour de France, I followed Richie Porte into the shower and Richie never questioned it. He was having a shower and I was getting my shoes wet, taking pictures of him.
I wonder if the riders are conscious of their popularity… Do they know what kind of image they want to give of themselves?
I don’t know. The Sky team has, I don’t know, 25-30 riders. And I suppose every person is a different character and is more or less open to showing parts of their private life. I don’t know; it’s hard to answer a question for somebody else! I suppose the way I can answer it is that no rider has ever said to me, “Don’t take pictures of me doing this.” And that’s across the board. I must have photographed 20 plus riders for Sky and nobody’s ever said anything…
And the team doesn’t give you any rules or limitations?
No, I haven’t got a brief here [Vuelta a España]. I had a brief in the Tour de France but that was because we had a lot sponsors’ requests. A couple of little things… I don’t know how to say it. The team is sponsored by shoes. That was a funny one, because the team was sponsored by Shimano and not all of the riders would wear Shimano shoes. So nobody told me not to photograph the shoes, but I’m aware of it. It’s a funny one. I suppose that’s the only sort of thing.
Going back to those “behind the scenes” photos and the comparisons with shots of a rock band before and after a show – I think they help create fans and make people feel like they’re part of the team. Do you agree?
Yeah, I hopefully make the team cooler. They are the top team in the word, the Tour the France winner, and I think maybe my photographs help give them a way of expressing themselves outside the regimented cycling world of turning up to a race, doing the race, sitting on the bus. And I know the riders, you know. Obviously they sign autographs, speak to fans… But I think it opens them up a little bit, makes them more human. I think it’s good as well that people see that they all turn up with their beautiful bikes and beautiful kit and nice cars and buses and everything, but that a lot suffering and hard work goes into getting them to that point. I hope my pictures may go some way towards showing that side of it.
It seems that more than any other rider, Bradley Wiggins knows what image he wants to project of himself and I think the image is an important part of his success. In some way he was very smart in asking you to join him because he recognized that you could bring a different approach to him and his sport, appeal to a different public. Do you think your pictures are making him an icon?
Yeah, maybe but I think beyond all that we became friends, and if you want someone to be that close and intimate with you… if I was somebody like Bradley, you know, that sort of superstar, if I was going to have somebody taking pictures, I would like to be friends, and trust them and be able to talk to them about stuff. We have that. Obviously, because of the mod thing, we’ve got so much common ground besides cycling. We never talk about cycling when we’re together. If he has that chat with everybody else – why would he have it with me? So I think he enjoys that side of it as well. I definitely haven’t made him icon, he’s made himself an icon. I hope my pictures have gone some way to showing more of his character outside of cycling.
But do you plan what part of his character the pictures should reveal?
No, no. Bradley doesn’t ever tell me what pictures to take. It’s not his character and I wouldn’t expect him to. In fact, no riders ever have. Musicians have, but not riders.
Maybe musicians know what part of themselves they want to show to the public!
Yeah, maybe musicians have slightly more perception about their public image in that way.
You are very active on Twitter. You even use all the Instragram filters but some photographers don’t like digital filters.
It’s just a bit of fun. I don’t want to say it’s not like proper photography, because it is proper photography, but it’s a bit of fun. If I’m at a Steve Cradock gig I can take a snap on my iPhone, I can post it and people can look at it and say: “Oh look! Steve’s playing here, it looks really cool.” Or I can take a picture of Bradley at the start line at the Tour the France and people will look at it and think, “Oh that’s what’s happening right now.” It’s like an instant hit and I really like that. It’s just a way of bringing it to a wider audience. It’s cool.
Many thanks to Scott Mitchell and Rod Ellingworth